Kava: What is it and why you should care

What is Kava?

Kava: What is it and why you should care

Kava Kava (Piper methysticum), also referred to simply as Kava, is a plant originating from South Pacific islands that has been used for centuries in traditional medicine thanks to its nootropic/anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) properties. It is a calming herb and often used to relax individuals without reducing cognitive capacity and mental acuity.

In Fiji, Australia, and other countries, it is commonly consumed as part of beverages (particularly tea). Data is rather abundant on Kava Kava’s nootropic and anxiolytics properties, with most research being done on specific substances named Kava extract LI 150 and Kava extract WS 1490. These specific forms of Kava Kava contain precise amounts of active compounds, and appear to contend with benzodiazepines (a type of anxiety medication) in efficacy for treating symptoms of anxiety.[1]

This article will give you all the information and background you need to know about Kava Kava, as well as useful tips to maximize your Kava Kava nootropic regimen.

How Kava Kava works

The main active constituents in Kava Kava are known as kavapyrones and kavalactones (structures shown below).

Upon oral ingestion of Kava Kava, these constituents readily cross the blood-brain barrier and exert nootropic/anxiety-reducing effects within roughly 45 minutes, primarily by increasing activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors and increasing levels of serotonin.[2] Serotonin and GABA are two crucial neurotransmitters for regulating anxiety, as decreasing levels of either is typically tied to depression and anxiety disorders.[3],[4]

Constituents in Kava Kava also seem to elevate dopamine levels in the brain; however, this effect is unreliable as some kavalactones may decrease dopamine activity. For example, one study found that isolated Yangonin and Kavain decreased dopamine upwards of 50% versus baseline values, whereas Dihydrokavain and Desmethoxyyangonin induced a steady rise of dopamine over the course of several hours.[5]

Benefits of Kava Kava

Kava Kava has vast nootropic benefits, with research focusing largely on its anxiety-reducing actions. Most users agree that the mood-enhancing property of Kava Kava makes it a worthwhile nootropic, even if you’re not generally an anxious individual.

If you’re currently taking benzodiazepines or other anti-anxiety medication, it is prudent to taper off them and gradually introduce Kava Kava to avoid withdrawals and drug-drug interactions. As always though, don’t replace your current medications with Kava Kava until you’ve consulted with a licensed physician.

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That being said, the most applicable research-based benefits from Kava Kava use include[1-[6]],:

  • Natural anxiety-reducing properties
  • Promotes calmness without reducing mental function
  • Boosts sense of well-being
  • Slows the neurodegenerative process
  • Can help improve sleep length and quality

How to Use Kava Kava Effectively

The form and dose of Kava Kava you will benefit most from depends on the purpose for which you want to use it. Our dosing/form suggestions are as follows:

Reducing Anxiety: 200 mg -300 mg of WS1490 extract daily or 400 mg LI 150 extract daily (split over two doses)

Boosting Mood: 300 mg of LI 150 extract any time you want to boost your sense of well-being

Enhancing Neuroprotection: 200 mg of LI 150 extract daily

Improving Sleep: 100 mg – 150mg of WS 1490 extract taken about one hour before bed

Be wary that generic Kava Kava supplements may contain low amounts of active compounds; make certain to buy a Kava Kava product that is at least 30-50% active constituents. WS 1490 is a patented extract of Kava Kava, regulated to contain 70% kavalactones, and sold under the brand name Laitan 50. This is the current ‘gold standard’ form of Kava Kava, with exceptional reliability and purity.

LI 150, on the other hand, yields 30% kavapyrones, and is ostensibly 15 times more potent than a typical generic Kava Kava root extract supplement.

Take-Home Points

Mechanistically speaking, research suggests that Kava Kava works by modulating levels of GABA, dopamine, and serotonin in the brain. Further studies will likely zero in on the specific individual effects of Kava Kava constituents; as was discussed in this article, each kavapyrone and kavalactone seems to have varying effects on neurotransmitters in the central nervous system, leading to unreliable research findings.

All in all, Kava Kava presents a promising alternative for anti-anxiety medications with nearly none of the associated side effects. The main thing is to make sure you’re using a reliable form of Kava Kava extract, particularly WS 1490 and LI 150 extracts. You can buy generic extracts as well, but they generally lack the strict standardization and potency that patented forms offer.

[1] Witte, S., Loew, D., & Gaus, W. (2005). Meta‐Analysis Of The Efficacy Of The Acetonic Kava‐Kava Extract WS® 1490 In Patients With Non‐Psychotic Anxiety Disorders. Phytotherapy Research, 19(3), 183-188.

[2] Baum, S. S., Hill, R., & Rommelspacher, H. (1998). Effect of kava extract and individual kavapyrones on neurotransmitter levels in the nucleus accumbens of rats. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry22(7), 1105-1120.

[3] Cochran, E., Robins, E., & Grote, S. (1976). Regional serotonin levels in brain: a comparison of depressive suicides and alcoholic suicides with controls. Biological psychiatry11(3), 283-294.

[4] Sanacora, G., Mason, G. F., Rothman, D. L., Behar, K. L., Hyder, F., Petroff, O. A., … & Krystal, J. H. (1999). Reduced cortical γ-aminobutyric acid levels in depressed patients determined by proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Archives of general psychiatry56(11), 1043-1047.

[5] Garrett, K. M., Basmadjian, G., Khan, I. A., Schaneberg, B. T., & Seale, T. W. (2003). Extracts of kava (Piper methysticum) induce acute anxiolytic-like behavioral changes in mice. Psychopharmacology170(1), 33-41.

[6] Backhauβ, C., & Krieglstein, J. (1992). Extract of kava (Piper methysticum) and its methysticin constituents protect brain tissue against ischemic damage in rodents. European journal of pharmacology215(2-3), 265-269.

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